Heidi Newfield's love affair with 'Johnny and June'
Heidi Newfield is the leading female nominee heading into Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony, which will unfold from the MGM Grand hotel in Las Vegas. With five nominations, she’s vying for top female vocalist, single, video and song for her hit “Johnny and June” (for which she’s nominated twice, as the song’s singer and co-writer, with Deanna Bryant and Stephony Smith). Only Brad Paisley has more nominations, with six. Not bad for someone who just put out her debut album, “What Am I Waiting For.”
Of course, it never hurts to be a “new” artist with a track record, which in the 38-year-old Northern California native’s case includes the three albums and eight singles she charted earlier this decade as songwriter and lead singer for the trio Trick Pony.
She experienced feelings of “joy, elation and validation” when she heard her name called repeatedly on the February morning the nominations were announced on CBS’ “The Early Show.”
But she sensed right away that she was on to something special with the song that doffs a Stetson to the long-standing love affair between the first couple of country music, Johnny and June Carter Cash.
“Right after I wrote it, I brought a demo to Tony’s office and played it for him and a couple other people,” she said, referring to veteran Nashville producer and record label exec Tony Brown. “I said ‘I think I’ve just written my first single.’ I played it for them and they said ‘We think you did too.’ It was a no-brainer. The song really fit my voice.”
It was a tad daunting to write a country song about two of the genre’s titans, but for Newfield, the bigger challenge was coming up with something that went beyond a well-chosen bit of name-dropping.
“I wrote it with complete reverence for these people I had been able to spend some time with,” she said backstage at CBS-TV studios in L.A., just moments after wrapping a performance of the song for “The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson.”
“It wasn’t ‘Let’s take two iconic people and use them in a song.’ It was very personal. And we scrutinized every word, because I wanted it to transcend the big personalities it was about and become something everyone could relate to. Who doesn’t want a love like that?”
The icing on the cake for her was feedback she got from John Carter Cash, the couple’s son. “He said he loved the song, and the really great thing was he said he knew his parents would be honored and proud.”
The success of “Johnny and June” has kick-started the new phase of her life and music, reinforcing her feeling that she made the right decision in leaving Trick Pony, which she’d formed with guitarist Keith Burns and bassist Ira Dean nearly a decade ago.
Each of the trio’s three albums outcharted its predecessor, with 2005’s “R.I.D.E.” reaching No. 20 on the country chart. But Newfield believed, musically if not commercially, the band had gone as far as it was likely to, and she decided to make a break.
That’s probably more of a risk in country music, where fans tend to develop deep loyalties to whatever acts they latch on to, and can perceive a departure like hers as an act of disloyalty.
Scoring a hit single out of the gate, she noted, “has been a catalyst that’s allowed me to keep the Trick Pony fans and helped to create a new audience for me. Now there are a lot of people who are asking ‘Who is this woman and why should I want to buy her music?’”
On the first count, she’s a musician who grew up in the Northern California wine country of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, which, she noted, has always played second fiddle to neighboring Napa County in terms of public perception and prestige among wine aficionados.
Her dusky voice was honed in many a bar gig, where she not only sang but played blues harmonica, an instrument she still includes in her performances. When she first came to Nashville, she said she was crushed when someone told her that her unusual sound meant “I wouldn’t make a good demo singer, because I didn’t sound like anybody else. I was too young and green to know then that that was a good thing.
“Timing has so much to do with everything,” she said. “We named the album ‘What Am I Waiting For,’ and it’s really been like, ‘What was I waiting for?'"
-- Randy Lewis
Photo: Heidi Newfield. Credit: Ed Rode / Associated Press